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Japanese gardens calm Alzheimer’s patients

Japanese gardens appear to relieve stress and calm people who sit in them, according to researchers who observed the effects of Japanese gardens on Alzheimer’s patients.

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NGS stock photo by Sam Abell

Seiko Goto, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, and Karl Herrup, professor and chair of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers, surveyed residents at the Medford Leas Continuing Care Community in Medford, New Jersey.

The facility has a series of courtyards with 32 gardens, and residents were asked which they preferred.

“The Japanese gardens scored highest. The herb gardens scored lowest,” Goto said in a Rutgers news release. “Japanese gardens significantly reduced stress. We confirmed this with a heart-rate test comparing the Japanese garden, the herb garden, and an unstructured space with a single tree.”

The subtle nature of the herb garden wasn’t appealing to older people, who typically have poorer vision, the researchers said.

“A Japanese garden has a viewpoint, shade and sun, and a meandering, natural flow for the eye.”

“People who didn’t like the herb garden said it was ‘weedy,'” Goto explained. “A Japanese garden has a viewpoint, shade and sun, and a meandering, natural flow for the eye.”

Goto recently created a small Japanese garden in a room at one end of the Alzheimer unit at the Francis E. Parker Memorial Home and introduced several residents to the garden during 15-minute sittings twice a week. In these brief exposures, “interesting things happened,” the professor said.

“Many of these patients don’t know who they are,” she said. “Many get confused at a certain time of day. Yet immediately upon being in the garden they calmed down, even if they were in the midst of screaming.

“They smiled and stayed calm for the rest of the day. The doctor said this was more effective than medications that can take time to work and leave patients listless.”

“Japanese gardens can be very small and installed indoors,” Goto said. “They can be put in anywhere at low cost. If they reduce stress, this could mean lower healthcare costs, less medicine, and fewer calls to the nurse. This could have huge implications.”

Singing cricket

At one point during the testing, there was a cricket singing in a chrysanthemum plant, Rutgers noted in its news statement. “Ten days passed before the next garden visit. Yet when they returned to the garden, two of the four patients who had heard the chirping asked: ‘Where is the cricket?'”

“That these people could associate the cricket with the garden after one brief exposure–and retained this association for ten days–basically gave me goose bumps,” Herrup said.

“The caveat is that in a rigorous sense, this has to be recognized as anecdotal, qualitative data. For right now, however, the results are a strong incentive for us to keep going,” Herrup said.

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Zen Buddhists meditate at the rock garden of the Ryoan-Ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan. Read the National Geographic News story Zen Garden’s Calming Effect Due to Subliminal Image?

NGS stock photo by George F. Mobley

Comments

  1. Gayle Souter-Brown
    November 7, 2013, 2:40 pm

    Hi David, This article is exactly what I’m looking for to support a chapter on salutogenic design guidelines in a book I’m writing for Routledge Press (London) on Landscape and Urban Design for Health and Well-being. Would you mind if I quoted you? I’d love permission to use your photos too. Best regards, Gayle

    • Sonia Harmon
      November 11, 2013, 4:39 pm

      Hi Gayle,
      It’s perfectly fine to quote this blog post, but we cannot give you permission to use the photos, as the rights belong to those photographers and/or National Geographic, so you would have to license the photos in order to use them. Thank you for asking!

  2. Kathleen Fink
    March 1, 2013, 5:45 am

    Having studied Japanese gardens in Japan and lived with one in my own yard for many years, I was convinced they have special properties for healing since they aim to capture the essence of nature which has been shown to be healing. I could find very little research on the subject, but this particular research was perfect for providing support for my hypothesis. Thanks to the researchers and for publishing this article.